John Law’s New Congregation – These Skies In Which We Rust
(33 Extreme. 33Xtreme006. CD Review by Adrian Pallant)
For almost thirty years, classically-trained British pianist John Law has been pushing on the door of jazz creativity, forming and reshaping his own particularly diverse routes through an impressive catalogue of ensemble and solo piano releases.
The last decade has seen a consolidation of his considerable compositional and performance strengths – including collaborations with Sam Burgess, Yuri Goloubev and Asaf Sirkis – to create a memorable clutch of albums from his Art of Sound and Congregation projects (2009’s piano trio release, entitled Congregation, an unquestionable treasure). Throughout, his inventive, precise solo piano extemporisations have remained at the heart of everything he produces, even when subtly enhanced by glockenspiel, electronics, other keyboards or prepared piano techniques.
For this double album release from John Law’s New Congregation, he again enjoys the company of expressive bassist Yuri Goloubev, along with drummer Laurie Lowe (from Law’s recent electronic quartet project, Boink!), and introduces the spirited playing of acclaimed young London-based tenorist Josh Arcoleo. Law’s approach has always felt essentially English – and endearingly so. Perhaps it’s his quirkily teasing song titles and the stories of their origins, plus the upright solidity of his particularly distinctive technique. But that’s where any semblance of immaculacy ends, as his original works are enduringly attractive and frequently bracing, with a good measure of unpredictability.
The hundred-minute expanse of this eleven-track playlist allows Law and his colleagues the freedom to stretch out, as in opening When Planets Collide where nebulous electro-effects hover behind an oscillating 4/4 and 5/4 piano-and-bass groove – the perfect spacial canvas for Law’s eloquent improvisations and Yuri Goloubev’s characteristically cantabile bass resonance; and Laurie Lowe demonstrates his thunderous percussive capabilities. Seven Ate Nine (Law’s tricksy, rhythmic interpretation of children’s joke, “Why was Six scared of Seven? Because…”) is based on an ebullient ascending motif – seven rhythmically fighting nine – whose middle section lyricism contrasts beautifully, as the pianist makes it all seem so effortless.
Interpreting Law’s memories of live, outdoor African music, Laurie Lowe’s ibo drum in The Music of the Night conveys exotic summer’s evening warmth, jangling to prepared piano and fabulously overblown tenor lines from Arcoleo; and rocky To Do Today To Die mesmerises with audacious cross-rhythms, whilst bright piano and tenor lines shine above Goloubev’s rolling bass and Lowe’s ticking tempo (do NOT attempt to background-listen to this music!).
Conjuring the cinemascope grandeur of John Williams, a glockenspiel-and-chorale prelude to title track These Skies In Which We Rust widens into a bewitching groove inspired by the poetry of Law’s teenage daughter, Holly; and, for a moment, that innate Englishness is firmly put under the spell of exquisite Balkan mystery. Lucky 13 is typically and brazenly mischievous, written in 13 for the pianist’s son’s 13th birthday; and remarkably, I Sink Therefore I Swam sparks to animated, Phronesis-like riffs and rhythms (Goloubev sounding uncannily like its dedicatee, Jasper Høiby!), with Arcoleo adding crunchy tenor histrionics to Lowe’s Eger-style fireworks – quite a standout.
Set Theory has all the string-backed, jingly charm of an ’80s chart hit, albeit with Law’s predilection for edgy, hard-driving momentum and quickfire soloing; and Conical is an inspired representation of former drummer Asaf Sirkis’ breathtaking abilities in the vocalised, rhythmic, Indian art of Konnakol (Lowe also cleverly mimicking Sirkis’ hard snare action). Incarnadine Day is a new interpretation of a previously-released track – the sinister weight of Holly Law’s 9/11-prompted poetry expressed through jarring, disconcerting electronics, wailing sirens and the overall urgency of the quartet. And, as if to honour the many victims of that world-changing event, I Hold My Soul to the Wind peacefully closes the album with piano trio and the hopeful, sweet innocence of Holly’s wordless vocal.
Review copies of this album, recorded in July 2014, have only been sent out sporadically. But, as ever, John Law does not disappoint – and any thoughts of extravagance or surplusage in releasing a two-disc set are dispelled by the freedom and inventiveness displayed in these scintillating performances.
Adrian Pallant is a proofreader, musician and jazz writer who also reviews at his own site ap-reviews.com